Belly of the Beast is a roleplaying game with a terrifyingly unique premise: the players are scavengers living in the guts of a giant, world-eating monster. The entire game is laser-focused on hardy, grim survivors collecting whatever tools, technology, and food they can to stay alive in an environment that is absolutely opposed to their continued existence, and it does a brilliant job of crafting thematic rules to achieve this.
This review is updated from an earlier version that covered the pre-release version of the game while it was Kickstarting. The Kickstarter went swimmingly, so now we get to look at the fully-released version of this frightening and awesome game!
Rating: Content 5/5 and Form 5/5.
- Buy the PDF, ebook and Print-on-Demand versions at DriveThruRPG
Read on for the full review!
Another standard element of Sigil Stone’s games is the use of brief Summary text-boxes at the end of each section, covering either the rules or setting material presented in that section. This provides extremely useful reinforcement of the material just covered, and can easily be provided to players as a capsule explanation of the game’s setting, rules, or both.
Hundreds of years ago a massive rock fell from the sky, crushing kingdoms and continents beneath its force. Eventually, life in the realms returned to a state of normalcy, and the many clans continued their incessant struggle for power.
Three generations past, the skyrock – said to possess foul energies and discordant vibrations – erupted in a disgusting ball of effluence and viscera, revealing the creature that dwelt within it – the Swallower of Worlds, the Insatiable God, the Devourer, or simply: the Beast.
Incalculably large, the Beast unfurled its great girth upon the land, consuming thousands of leagues of soil, stone, and forest. One by one, the mighty strongholds and great armies of the age fell against its inexorable consumption.
And yet when legions, empires, and cities are swallowed whole – not all is lost. A rare few survive the Devouring, and test their mettle living in the belly of the Beast.
You are one of these exemplars of grit and greed: a scavenger. Hundreds of great civilizations have been consumed, but their wares, artifacts, and materials are ripe for the taking deep within the recesses of your new home’s guts.
You really can’t get much crazier than that. There’s not a whole lot of pre-built NPCs, locations, or setting material detailed in the core rulebook, but rather there is ample information on the logistics of a world inside a monster’s digestive tract, and even a whole chapter of rules that bring the environment to life.
Thus, an interesting premise is offered, with all of the tools a GM and enterprising players need to run the kind of campaign they want in this unique environment. It’s up to the players and GM to define the type of campaign they want to run in this environment, and you won’t be lacking for details when it comes to questions like, “How would ABC work in this kind of environment?” You have a lot of leeway to build your own setting or steal from existing campaign settings across many game lines, and simply mash them together.
Kinda like what the Beast already does: mashes things (people! towns! continents!) down its gullet and continues on.
Belly of the Beast focuses on stories that revolve around a ragtag group of scavengers doing everything they can to not only survive, but to thrive living in this stinking cesspit of a monster’s gut.
The characters are tough, cruel, greedy bastards that care mainly about themselves, and the very few people who they might feel a hint of loyalty toward. Driven by instinct and need, only the cunning and the grim can make it as scavengers.
Personal tales of struggle, triumph, betrayal, greed, and the constant and incessant need for supplies in the face of danger fit well with Belly of the Beast.
Characters are made up of several traits:
- Choose two Instincts that define your character. Instincts include Curiosity, Fear, Greed, Loyalty, and Violence.
- Each Instinct provides a Maneuver.
- Define a Specialty that tells what your character is really, really good at.
- Rank your Skills, of which there are eight. These include things like Awareness, Wits, Stealth, Might, and Resolve.
- Select or define a Talent, which is kind of like a lesser version of a Specialty, which tells you something that you’re really good at (as opposed to really, really good).
There’s a central set of traits that tend to have a lot of mechanical implications, and in this case these would be the Instincts. They define how your character interacts with the world in a thematic way, define how you go about regaining Instinct Dice which can be used to supplement your dice pools, and provide you Maneuvers that are like special abilities you can activate during combat, social interactions, exploration, and scavenging.
Belly of the Beast’s gameplay has a relatively consistent and mechanically enforced cycle: encounter a problem or run out of stuff, look for the stuff that’ll solve the problem, get the stuff, and bring the stuff back in order to fix the issue.
Like all of Sigil Stone Publishing’s Ethos Engine games (such as Vow of Honor and Hunt the Wicked), players do all the rolling, and use six-sided dice they build into a pool. A single Base Die is supplemented with Advantage Dice (from gear and circumstantial benefits) and Instinct Dice, the latter of which is a resource that is awarded and spent throughout the course of a scene.
Once you’ve built your pool of dice, you roll and check each die against your pertinent Skill to see if you get a success or failure. Each success counts towards a Difficulty, and if you equal or exceed that Difficulty, you succeed at the task. Some simple things get one roll, while extended tasks might allow you to keep rolling until you either hit that Difficulty, or until you’ve reached a certain point and fail or simply run out of time.
Enemies, complex tasks, and everything else tend to work in a similar manner: they represent the Difficulty (and whether or not you’re rolling an extended series of rolls or not). The GM never rolls, concentrating instead on the narrative of the scene and the actions, and using the traits of the enemies or environment to determine the damage a player character takes or the general threat they face when they fail at a task.
A neat little trick in Belly of the Beast regarding Instincts is the ability for players to choose to Succumb to or Transcend one of their Instincts to automatically succeed at a task or end a scene in their favor. The thing is, this carries a huge change to that character’s being, and will have a telling affect on them going forward.
If a character Succumbs to their Instinct, they irrevocably give into that Instinct and act in almost animalistic manner, driven by it for a time, and feeling Ashamed afterward (a mechanical game state similar to being Injured or faced with a consequence). If a character Transcends their Instinct, they can no longer gain Instinct Dice or use the Maneuver associated with that Instinct, and have to “Advance” (level-up) in order to select a new Instinct.
Considering the setting, Horror and Sickness both get their own little subsystems, but essentially just act as complex tasks or enemies. Similarly, there is more complex systems than previous Ethos Engine games for dealing with equipment, specifically encumbrance, breakage and wastage. After all, you’re adventuring in the stomach acids of a giant beast, and a key piece of a character’s motivation is to haul loot, food, water, and supplies back to base.
Last but not least, there are several points about the beast’s physical status, which can be affected by the players, but that will in turn have drastic repercussions on the environment they adventure within. The beast has traits such as Hunger and Pain that the players can take advantage of or feel the consequences of. The environmental Hazards are given their own rules, and can grow more dangerous depending on the status of the beast.
You couldn’t possibly have a more intriguing resource for using this setting — or any setting, for that matter — in a homebrew manner. Simply take your favorite adventure module(s), campaign setting or some piece thereof, and your favorite supplements (a city here, an organization of assassins there, that book on Vikings over there), and say to your players:
“This is what got swallowed by the Beast. Use these books to create your characters, and you’ll be adventuring amidst this stuff…all of it currently smashing around in The Belly of the Beast.”
I mean, who says the Beast couldn’t have swallowed the spaceship from Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the city of Tyr from the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, and Mortuary with all its Dustmen inhabitants from the Planescape Campaign Setting?
Additionally, the mechanics — centered around the Instincts — will make any game of survival-horror feel focused and thematic. Considering there are great sections on equipment, this really seems like it would fit well in any kind of scavenging scenario, so expect to get a lot of these rules for your homebrew zombie apocalypse, Mad Max, or junkers-in-space style game.
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